I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down…
Like the wolf in the story of the Three Little Pigs, the forces of nature don’t have much respect for your succa, especially if you live in a high and exposed area, as we do in Jerusalem.
You hear stories of how the wind blew someone’s s’chach roof off overnight – or, worse, wake up and discover that it has happened to your own succa – and you realize what a fragile and impermanent structure that little dwelling is, and how little protection it affords.
The transience of the material world and one’s place in it is, of course, one of the lessons that a week spent in a flimsy hut open to the sky is meant to drive home. And whether that sojourn sharpens the observant Jew’s belief that the only real permanence is God Himself; or serves to remind the secular Jew that the search for meaning in life necessarily transcends the acquisition of a luxurious home and a pile of possessions, the succa in its simplicity and fragility speaks to all.
When you sit in it of an autumn evening and not only hear the wind blow but feel it blowing; when a sudden shower of rain is not something that you casually observe happening on the other side of your living room window but is actual wetness dropping on your head and diluting your soup, then, if you are open to it, you gain an immediate, personal understanding of physical vulnerability that goes beyond the theoretical.
‘THERE BUT for the grace of God [go I],” a 16th-century English clergyman called John Bradford reportedly said on witnessing a group of criminals being led to their execution. This humble observation, a striking example of empathy, earned him a footnote in history.
The homeless man, the outcast, the migrant and the refugee don’t need any lessons in vulnerability; their fragile existence is permeated with it. And this year especially, we cannot be unaware of such unfortunate people, inundated as the media have been with footage of frightened men, women and children fleeing their homes in the Middle East.
Squatting miserably by roadsides and in makeshift camps, they are exposed to the elements and to every danger.
But how many of us, beyond a fleeting sense of pity, can say during 51 weeks of the year that we identify in any real way with the fragility that is ever-present in the uncertain lives of these hundreds of thousands of dispossessed individuals and others like them with whom we have no personal contact? For one week in the year, huddled inside our leaky little huts as the evenings suddenly turn cold, there is more chance of our internalizing what being homeless actually means and moving beyond pity for the other to compassion and fellow-feeling.
At the same time, that simple little dwelling, giving us a small experience of fragility and uncertainty, can lead us to a new appreciation of the things we take for granted, such as a permanent roof over our heads.
The weather in Israel, even at the turn of the season, is mostly accommodating, making our sojourn in the succa a delightful change from our habitual daily pattern. We decorate it and invite friends to share meals in it, knowing that if necessary we can always retreat to the protection of our real homes nearby.
Yet, on a deeper level, by reducing us for a short time to that more basic mode of existence, the succa constitutes an object lesson in the vital importance of contrast in human life for that life to have any real depth or meaning.
Inhabit a solid house year-round, and you will take its protection as a given. Switch for a week to a shaky, draughty structure, and the difference cannot but spur a degree of reflection.
WITH ALL Western man’s reliance on amazing technological advances that have transformed his way of life and given him an exaggerated sense of his own power, this year has seen the emergence of uncertainties that challenge the most complacent of us everywhere. They sensitize us anew to the underlying fragility of life.
Who talked about Ebola a year ago? If we had even heard of it, it was just another of those viruses that break out in Third World countries among faroff populations already afflicted with all manner of ailments. It was scary, yes, but it didn’t affect the West. Fast forward to the recent chilling headline that appeared in the online version of USA Today: “Ebola only a plane flight away from the USA.”
With deaths from the deadly virus now recorded in the US, Ebola has proved to be not just an African problem but a world issue; the European Union executive is set to convene a meeting of health ministers this week to discuss the screening of possible Ebola victims when they enter the 28-nation bloc. Israel’s Health Ministry too is preparing for the eventuality of identifying, isolating and treating patients suspected of infection.
Then there is Islamic State with its hideous totalitarian ideology demonstrating a robotic disregard for human life in the pursuit of Islamic world hegemony. With worrying numbers of homegrown Western jihadists joining their soul-mates in Syria, likely to try and wreak havoc among the “infidels” once they return home, the cherished Western ideal of multiculturalism is proving quite fragile.
Can these terrifying uncertainties be related to Succot? They can, if only to make us reflect upon the great potential – but at the same time the limits – of human power vis-à-vis outside forces we can only dimly sense.
WE TEND to see fragility as only a negative characteristic – like the brittle bones of osteoporosis sufferers, or the precarious existence of a precious piece of china, which can easily shatter if dropped – but fragility is also one facet of beauty.
The impermanent has great power to affect and move us.
Think of a rainbow, a flower, a butterfly’s wing, the limpid beauty of a young person who will soon age and lose that haunting bloom. I think it’s something to do with rarity, and with the sense of privilege we have in enjoying something that will eventually pass.
When I visited a glass factory outside Venice some years ago, the adjacent store had an employee demonstrating how something done during the blowing process meant that a fragile-looking miniature glass horse could be dropped and remain whole. He demonstrated with gusto, and we all marveled; but some elusive element of its beauty had gone.
In 2001, American philosopher and author Martha Nussbaum wrote a book called The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, in which she examined the fact that many of the valued constituents of a well-lived life are vulnerable to factors outside a person’s control.
How, she asked, did this affect our appraisal of people and their lives? “Part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence...” she concluded, “is its vulnerability.”
In a 2005 piece called “Succot: The beauty of fragility,” Rabbi Daniel Greyber agreed that beauty is linked to vulnerability.
“We try so hard to protect ourselves, to protect our children. We build walls. We build strong, comfortable houses with roofs and heat for shelter and quiet. But we cannot be made invulnerable; we cannot keep ourselves safe and truly celebrate the beauty of this world.”
Perhaps the succa is telling us that our potential to act and to appreciate is, paradoxically, increased when we recognize our fragility.
WE WILL soon be dismantling and storing our little huts for another year. Hopefully any insights gained through sitting in them will remain.